L’écriture

So the new issue of Perspective – my first one since taking over as editor-in-chief – is up. The cover story, by my friends Lucy and Ian, is about how the Harvard labor movement and its student allies are responding to the financial crisis, and the Harvard administration’s at times highly objectionable methods in trying to cut costs. I did an interview with two Allston residents about Harvard’s delays in development there, another outgrowth of the sharp fall in the endowment (short version: Harvard is disrespectful to the communities that live around it – big surprise!). The editorial is on Black History Month, and the significance of both Barack Obama’s and (heh) Michael Steele’s elections. We also reran a piece from Progressive Nation at Princeton about Obama’s ability to woo over Asian-American voters, and the ever-perceptive Daniel Villafana pushes the Back Page to new heights by giving our room’s main method of procrastination the book review treatment. So check it out.

Also, I decided it was a good idea to make sure the Washington Post never hires me for anything, ever. In all seriousness, I’m really proud of this piece, and thank George Will profusely for bringing the subject up again in his column today, thus giving me a perfect time peg.

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Claude François

…is my new hero:

Yes, that’s “If I Had a Hammer” in French, with the most ridiculous dance moves known to man tacked on. Apparently, the guy behind this genius, François, is something of a national icon in France, complete with Elvis-style impersonators in the wake of his bizarre, lightbulb-provoked demise. Personally, I’m just impressed that the man could break it down like Gumby:

Apparently, his shtick was doing French-language versions of prominent American songs, like “If I Had a Hammer” (aka “Si j’avais un marteau”). And, um, er:

Yeah, that aside, we can agree that this man is made of awesome, no?

High-Quality Birthday Copy

So I’m 19 as of today, and there few birthday presents as good as really, really high-quality reportage. Thankfully, there’s been a lot of that over the past few days.

First off, you owe it to yourself to read Radley Balko’s devastating piece on “medical experts” Michael West and Steven Hayne, who have testified as a bite-mark examiners in the state of Mississippi for the better part of twenty years now. Their methodology has always been questionable, and Balko has long been key in demonstrating just how unreliable it is. But as great as his previous work is, it’s nothing compared to what he’s found now: video documentation of West forcing a suspect’s bite marks onto the corpse of his alleged victim. The suspect, Jimmie Duncan, is now on death row thanks to West and Hayne’s evidence tampering. Hopefully, Balko’s reporting will get that conviction erased, and perhaps get West and Hayne to move into Duncan’s old cell.

I’m sometimes skeptical of journalists’ ability to have a real impact on policy, but stuff like this gives me hope. Balko’s piece could very well save a man’s life, and possibly those of others. At the very least, it should thoroughly discredit Hayne and West and prevent them from ruining any others’ lives. That’s incredibly noble, and it’s the sort of the role that journalism should play in our society. So read the piece, and stand in awe of Radley Balko.

Closer to my age range, Charlie Eisenwood has been doing some incredible work for NYU Local. He didn’t just cover Take Back NYU’s occupation of a campus building, he embedded with the occupiers. As in, he sat in on TBNYU meetings, talked to the radicals, and liveblogged the entire thing. All of his material is great, but the late-night thread is particularly worth reading, for its account of the negotiations and sheer madness surrounding the NYU campus police’s 1AM deadline to the occupiers. This is like Burke’s Reflections, writ small and in real-time. Charlie documents the ideological incoherence, hypocrisy, myopia, and at times cowardice of the occupiers, while holding no brief for the NYU administration they’re resisting. I hope he’s sleeping now after covering the story for 29 hours straight hours, but in any case, everyone should check out his pieces.

To Dig Holes In the Ground

Quick: someone explain to me how what Megan McArdle is saying here is substantively different from what Michael Steele told George Stephanopoulos last week:

http://bloggingheads.tv/maulik/offsite/offsite_flvplayer.swf

Now, I’m not an economist, but I like to think I know a bit about politics, and I wonder where Megan gets the notion that legislators craft their PR strategies for government hiring programs based on their perception of the marginal product of labor of those programs. I tend to believe that PR strategies are products of message-testing and polling rather than economic metrics, but maybe I’m just naïve.

Also, a note to Bob Wright or whoever decides Bloggingheads pairings: I like Megan McArdle. I read her blog regularly, I watch her diavlogs, and think she does a fine job of explaining economic policy (however much I may disagree) to a lay audience. But she’s not an economist. If you want to match her up with Felix Salmon or Michael Lewis or Bethany McLean or some other economic journalist, fine. That’d be an interesting discussion, and it’s an apples-to-apples match-up. But let Dean Baker debate Robert Barro, or Kevin Murphy, or John Cochrane. Pairing him up with Megan, apparently, just leads to pissing matches about which BLS measure said what in which year in the 1930s.

Lying There Like You’re Tame

I feel a little silly ranting against a quote from Dennis Ross that I found at a Wikipedia page, but this is just so stupid it bears commenting on:

never in the time that I led the American negotiations on the Middle East peace process did we take a step because ‘the lobby’ wanted us to. Nor did we shy away from one because ‘the lobby’ opposed it. That is not to say that AIPAC and others have no influence. They do. But they don’t distort U.S. policy or undermine American interests.

I wonder what the word “influence” means in Dennis Ross’ world. In my world, it means the power to change policy from what it otherwise would be – in other words, to distort policy, or lead negotiators to “shy away from” unfavorable policies and take steps because the influence-wielder “wanted them to”. Apparently, Ross thinks “influence” is purely epiphenomenal.

Look, the Israel lobby can be influential, or it can “not distort U.S. policy”. It can’t do both. Given how indefensible it would be to deny the lobby’s influence, that means admitting that it distorts U.S. policy. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s a bad thing, and thankfully some Obama administration officials seem think it’s a bad thing, but Ross and Martin Indyk and other Israel hawks should welcome the additional pressure for their policy positions. But they should at least be honest about the lobby, and the role it plays in helping out their side of the argument.

The Game is Rigged

Matt laments:

At this point, I have no doubt that the doves are doomed to lose the argument as to whether or not the “surge” was the right policy to pursue in January 2007. At the same time, I have no doubt that had we instead pursued a policy of strategic redeployment starting in January 2007 and the exact same situation had played out, that the facts on the ground would be cited as evidence that the doves were wrong to leave behind an Iraq torn by violence, riven by factionalism, and governed by Iran-linked parties.

This is undoubtedly true, but I’d go further. While it’s possible for war opponents to be vindicated after they’ve already been defeated in the policy process – as in the initial invasion of Iraq and the ’64-onward escalation in Vietnam – it’s impossible for war opponents to have their preferred policies enacted and win the argument in the court of public opinion. Suppose that, somehow, Colin Powell and Dick Armitage had convinced Bush to stick to inspections and continued sanctions in Iraq in early 2003. I have no doubt that conventional wisdom in 2009 would be that the doves kept a dictator in power and left the door open for him to get nuclear weapons. Same thing if, by some similar implausibility, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution had failed in Congress and all US advisors were removed from South Vietnam. Saigon would have fallen sooner, and whoever tanked the escalation in Congress would be tarred forever with losing Indochina.

One caveat is that this presupposes an argument. Given as the 1964 and 2003 debates were triggered by an executive intention to go to war anyway, the situation is murkier had the executive intention not existed in the first place. But while it wouldn’t be as central a narrative, doves would still foot some blame. Had Gore won in 2000 and the Iraq debate never happened, you’d still hear voices – from the PNAC crowd, sure, but Fred Hiatt and his ilk too – condemning him for not “dealing” with Saddam. If Johnson had never pushed to escalate in Vietnam, he’d be attacked for neglect when Saigon fell.

The logic behind this is simple enough. Debates over war are debates over priorities. With some exceptions – like when conservatives decide that not enough Latin American nuns are being gunned down – there’s very little debate on what goals we should be pursing when the question of force arising. Every respectable person in 1964 opposed the spread of Communism. Every reasonable person in 2003 thought the world would be better off with Saddam out of power. The debate in 1964, such as there was one, was instead about whether keeping South Vietnam in the American orbit was worth committing hundreds of thousands of troops. The debate in 2003 was about whether dislodging Saddam was worth the military commitment and diplomatic damage. So when you oppose a war, you are effectively judging the costs of inaction against those of action, and when war opponents succeed, the costs of inaction remain. Which, in turn, makes it easy to argue that we should have invaded after all.